April 17, 2015 / 8:34 AM / 2 years ago

Assad says Turkish support 'main factor' in Idlib takeover

Members of al Qaeda's Nusra Front man a checkpoint at the entrance of Idlib city April 14, 2015. REUTERS/Mohamad Bayoush

BEIRUT (Reuters) - Syrian President Bashar al-Assad has said Turkish support was the main factor that helped insurgents to seize the northwestern Syrian city of Idlib from his government’s control last month.

Idlib, a short drive from the Turkish border, is only the second provincial capital to fall to insurgents in the four-year-old civil war. It was captured by an alliance of Islamist groups including al Qaeda’s Syrian arm, the Nusra Front.

“Any war weakens any army, not matter how strong, no matter how modern,” Assad said in an interview with Swedish newspaper Expressen, published on Friday.

In the fall of Idlib, “the main factor was the huge support that came through Turkey; logistic support, and military support, and of course financial support that came through Saudi Arabia and Qatar.”

A Turkish government spokesman denied the claim. Turkey is one of the states most hostile to Assad.

The Syrian conflict is estimated to have killed around 220,000 people. Assad has lost control over much of the north and east while trying to shore up his control over the main population centers in the west, with the help of allies including Iran and the Lebanese group Hezbollah.

Idlib has been targeted by heavy Syrian army air strikes since it fell to the insurgents. The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said there were at least 54 strikes on Friday.

The monitoring group said these included 17 barrel bombs, packed with explosives and shrapnel and dropped from helicopters. Government officials could not be reached for comment.

The Observatory said government forces had killed two leading al Qaeda figures, both Gulf Arabs, south of Idlib city.

Starting next month, the U.N. envoy for Syria Staffan de Mistura is planning to consult Syrian protagonists and interested states on a new round of peace talks. Past attempts have failed to make progress.

Asked about the initiative, Assad said the Syrian crisis had been complicated by external intervention.

Referring to states that are hostile to him, including Turkey, he said de Mistura was aware that if “he couldn’t convince these countries to stop supporting the terrorists and let the Syrians solve their problem, he will not succeed”.

The United States wants to see Assad gone from power and has rejected the idea of allying with him against Islamic State, which has taken over large parts of Syria. In a series of interviews with Western media, he has repeatedly pressed his case that the jihadist groups in Syria pose a threat to Western states.

“Syria is a fault line,” Assad said. “When you mess with this fault line you will have the echoes and repercussions in different areas, not only in our area, even in Europe.”

Reporting by Tom Perry in Beirut, Humeyra Panmuk in Istanbul and Ahmed Tolba in Cairo; Editing by Andrew Roche

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